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In colloquial British English today you hear "Cheers" (to mean "thank you") more often than "Thanks."

Is the choice of one or the other determined by regional, class, or education differences, or is there some vague distinction in meaning or implication, or is this just one of those random things?

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I barely hear Thank you here in Australia. It's all Cheers. –  Hamid Aug 22 '10 at 3:01
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Actually I hear Thank you alot more in Australia, than Cheers. Although increasingly the two do seem to be interchangable. –  Anonymous Type Nov 14 '10 at 21:40
    
@Hamid: as an Englishman in Victoria, I have been pulled up for my use of Cheers - it makes me stand out as foreign, apparently :) –  chimp Feb 1 '11 at 8:37

12 Answers 12

up vote 18 down vote accepted

'Cheers' has two main uses:

  1. For expressing appreciation.
  2. For toasting.

I have generated a small graph that plots my understanding of its usage here in the UK. I lumped class and education level together as, in this case, they probably roughly correlate. This will upset posh people as they know that class has nothing to do with where you went to uni, and will upset some educated people as posh people are all inbred thickies who only went to school for the rugger and the fagging.

This is the sort of nonsense the British middle class obsess about.

Things to note about the graph:

  1. The propensity to use cheers as 'thanks' is level at the start and drops off a cliff at the end. This is because blue collar/working class use it for everything and properly posh landed gentry types wouldn't dream of saying it. Not in public anyway.
  2. When toasting it's fairly universal. There's a dip at the middle class, purely because they might use words from other languages such as salute or na zdrovyeh. The upper classes wouldn't use bloody forrin words but the dip is maintained as they might toast The Queen!

I could tweak this graph for hours - for example should the thanking line actually drop to zero as chavs/the underclass never say anything remotely resembling cheers or thank you? Does the thanking line actually have a more subtle convex gradient?

But I won't.

Two final things to note, are that it can also depend on familiarity between to the two parties conversing and the perceived formality of the occasion. If you know someone well, everyone is more more likely to use it. If you don't know someone at all, in informal conversation you can use 'cheers, thank you' as a handy catch all.

For a really good book on things like this, I recommend Kate Fox's Watching the English.

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This is a handy little summary. I would however point out that it's common enough for the upper-middle or even many upper class persons to use 'cheers' in some contexts. –  Noldorin Nov 22 '10 at 10:33
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Stereoptyping much? So the underclass all grunt, the middle class dip into foreign languages, and the upper classes all say 'Top drawer, what?!'? The only worthwhile bit of the post was the observation that it often depends on 'familiarity and perceived formality', which I think are the decisive factors. –  CJM Nov 23 '10 at 12:18
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'The only worthwhile bit of the post'. Charming. It's not that serious is it? –  user774 Nov 23 '10 at 13:41
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CJM is a bit harsh, and I did enjoy your answer… but I think with something like this, it’s really easy to mis-perceive or overgeneralise one’s own experience, and so it’s a bit dangerous to make these kind of statements unless you at least have community consensus to back it up, and preferably some actual data (eg searching in the BNC or similar online text corpus). Like Noldorin’s, my impression is different from yours — but I’m not sure mine is right/typical, either. –  PLL Dec 11 '10 at 20:04
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I had the same issue with “Watching the English”. It was great fun, full of sharp observation and witty analysis, but the basis for her generalisations was usually on the level of “…I heard this a dozen times in pubs.” Which is something, but not much unless we know (a) how many pubs did she spend time in and not hear it, (b) how many pubs did she hear contrasting alternatives in (was she even listening out for them?), (c) how representative were her pubs…? I appreciate that sampling bias/confirmation bias are really hard to avoid in antrhopology, but one can at least make an effort. –  PLL Dec 11 '10 at 20:10

I can only speak from personal experience, but I never used "cheers" to mean "thank you" until I moved to the south west of England (having previously lived in London and the Midlands), where it seemed to be more common.

It's certainly not universal, though it may be hard to define exactly which parts of the country its used in, and by whom.

I'm not aware of any particular difference in meaning from saying "thanks", though it is perhaps less formal.

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I'm the same, but I moved to the Northwest of England. So it doesn't seem particularly strongly rooted. –  Humphrey Bogart Aug 24 '10 at 10:47
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It's certainly very common in Bristol (in the South West of England). 'Cheers Drive' - often used when thanking a public bus driver - is so common it even has it's own t-shirt: flickr.com/photos/jennifrog/57549186 ! You can find more Bristolian slang here: thatbebristle.co.uk/dictionary –  Jon Hadley Aug 26 '10 at 9:39

Additionally it is interesting to note that many people seem to use it as a kind of farewell greeting too (or in combination like "cheers, bye").

Here it sounds very much like the German "Tschüs" (which is the informal "bye" in German) - I could very well imagine that in a few decades this could lead to some etymological confusion... ;-)

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"Cheers" is easier to pronounce than "thanks"; its second syllable just rolls off the toungue, rather than jarring like the "k" in thanks.

The laziness of man should never be underestimated.

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Some discussion here http://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/2007/03/cheers.html

Personally, I think it's more usage than demographics.

  1. 'Thanks' expresses more gratitude. 'Cheers' to the guy who passes the salt, 'thanks' to the guy who donates a kidney.

  2. 'Thanks' also has more gravitas (though less than 'Thank you'). An interviewer is unlikely to say 'Cheers, Prime Minister'. David Cameron is unlikely to say 'I would like to say cheers to the British public for electing me'.

But I can't think of circumstances where 'Thanks' would be considered too formal.

(These points are probably true of all colloquialisms.)

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+1. Also, as Lynneguist (the author of the "separated by a common language" blog you linked to) seems to point out (but doesn't exactly: maybe I'm making this up), "cheers" is a way to express a vague unspecified goodwill without actually expressing indebtedness. :-) –  ShreevatsaR Aug 31 '10 at 1:09

I spent many summers in Woking (Surrey) and "cheers" is pretty common in that area. For example, everyone said "cheers" to the bus driver when getting off.

If you have doubts about which one using, just go with "thanks" and you'll be fine everywhere.

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If memory serves, cheers was exclusively for toasting in the days of my youth. The secondary usage—as an expression of thanks—began to creep in during the 70s and 80s.

I first encountered it London but it gradually spread throughout the British isles, perhaps as a result of the popularity of EastEnders.

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I think it is funny that class has anything to do with it. I have heard it used as "goodbye" mostly from my British friends (all educated) who don't mind hanging out with Americans (also educated).

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+1 Yes, it's used as a casual 'farewell' also. –  CJM Nov 23 '10 at 12:20

I was raised in Britain but have been living in Canada and Seattle for the past few years. I wasn't much of a "cheers" person in the UK, but I've started using it in North America a lot... simply because the locals here expect and enjoy it from someone with a British accent!

The most prevalent use of it I remember from the UK is that one of my friends used to sign his emails off with it, i.e. "Cheers, Dom". He wasn't really thanking or toasting anyone, but I liked it a lot!

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For advance notice, 'cheers' is common enough in the area I grew up and I still use it.

I'd call it 'casual' - not so casual that using it to the wrong person is rude, but casual in the same way that 'thanks' is more casual than 'thank you'. If I'm talking to someone older than me, that I don't know, and who is a woman, I'm more likely to go for the more polite term.

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The advantage of using cheers both as a casual "thank you" and a "good bye" becomes obvious when shopping, as you can finish the whole process semi-politely with just one word.

In addition to IainMH's graph, it might be worth correlating a "mate/pal" line. "Cheers" is more likely to be accompanied by these, the lower the class. Cheers mate is ubiquitous here in Sfamptn (Southampton). This distinction of course stereotypical and luckily the class lines are blurring. Even my well educated boss uses "cheers, mate" a lot. Apart from that, the usage at my workplace tends to be as described for small favours, e.g. holding the door. Writing a huge chunk of code for someone else usually results in a thank you.

As a personal anecdote from my graduation: I remember the chancellor saying that he was surprised that only 11 students said "cheers, mate" when going for the handshake with him :)

I would be grateful if some could shed some light on to the differences to "ta" which tends to be used for small favours as well...

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I work for an American retailer and while we mostly say thanks to each other, we've started using "cheers" more often as a quick way to say "thank you" for the little things... I also see it in emails between friends on occasion. It's simply a friendly, informal way to quickly yet politely close an interaction on an upbeat note. While its use here isn't rampant by any means, it doesn't raise eyebrows or come off as foreign to younger people up through about age 50. I never hear older Americans using it, however, except those who are highly educated.

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